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Not hashtag, ashtag. 1 March 2017

Posted by Dr Moose in Faith, Lent, Life.
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There is a line in the Christian funeral liturgy, at the time of committal, which is known well enough from tv dramas, even from those who rarely avail themselves of the good offices of the church, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” during which the coffin is usually lowered into the ground, or around which the curtains close at the crematorium. Words of finality, of closure, of ending. After all when the flames die down, what is left but dry, ultimately cold, ash. The residue of what was, and a byword for desolation.

ash-smallNot a very hopeful symbol to mark the start of Lent! In 90 minutes of so I shall be offering Holy Communion with the imposition of ashes here at university. Not just the bread and wine, as a memory and remembrance of the Last Supper, the Passover celebration that Jesus shared with his friends and disciples on the night before he died, but also the opportunity to receive the sign of that Cross in ash on the forehead. Ash, administered with the words “Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”

 

Ash for repentance, for the awareness of mortality.

What we might tend to forget is that ash isn’t useless. I’m a geographer by training, if not by much in the way of contemporary practice. But I still remember, even from school, a form of agriculture practiced by indigenous jungle-dwellers: slash-and-burn, or the more obscure (and therefore all the more memorable) term, swiddening. The easiest way to clear the land for cultivation is simply to chop down the vegetation and set fire to it, a frightfully wasteful policy at first sight. Then, when the ashes have cooled, turn the surface of the soil to bury the ashes, which as they break down release nutrients back into the earth. Farm for a while, then move on, returning to familiar places after years of regrowth. A cycle of life, death, life. Simple, effective and enlightening.

In the very ash, the very symbol of ending, lies the material for regrowth, for renewal. As I, as we, begin Lent, what is it that needs to die to allow new growth? Not just at the big scale, that of our own inevitable death (however much we may wish to ignore that inconvenient truth) but at the smaller scale? What are the habits I pursue that are destructive to myself and others? Where does my attitude betray a lack of compassion, humanity and gratitude?

cross-smallIn the very ash, the very symbol of ending, will also be traced the Cross, the symbol of salvation. Life, to death, to life. Mine, his, mine renewed: the hope of distant Easter, and beyond.

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